Reversing Years of Neglect on a Hill Above Nashville

02/13/2013 -

Published on The New York Times

May 8, 2012

Reversing Years of Neglect on a Hill Above Nashville

by BOBBY ALLYN

NASHVILLE- On a bluff overlooking the Cumberland River, the odd collection of trolley barns and old hospital buildings here known as Rolling Mill Hill has been in some stage of redevelopment for the last 14 years.

The recession nearly halted work on the 34-acre site, which has been; promoted as a mixed-use community for Nashville's creative class and a revival of a once-neglected section of this city of 600,000.

Now, activity is humming again at Rolling Mill Hill.

The six red-brick trolley barns, which trace their history to the Works Progress Administration, have recently been rehabilitated by The Mathews Company, a local developer, into office and retail spaces with high ceilings of exposed wood and bowed steel trusses.

The barns' 80,000 square feet will soon be brimming with young professionals.  The offices of Emma, an e-mail marketing agency' the local entrepreneurs center; and a lengthily list of other start-up companies have signed lease there and are in the process of moving in.  Next to the rehabbed barns, the Ryman Lofts, subsidized rental apartments for artists and musicians, are now rising from the ground and are scheduled to open by fall.

On the site's southern side, former Victorian and Art Deco hospital buildings have been converted to apartments.  Nearby are the Metro, a market-rate rental building that opened in 2009, and Nance Place, subsidized housing for residents with annual salaries under $28,000 that opened last summer.

A switchback road connects the northern tier to the southern portion on a hill.  The view from there, the highest point in downtown Nashville, takes a scrap yard and patches of development, but mostly sprawl on the east side of the river.  To the north, downtown's church steeples and modest skyscrapers provide a snapshot of a Southern city in transition, still grappling with industrial-era eyesores and more recent suburban sprawl, despite the city's efforts to focus on the downtown area.

There are still about 4.5 acres of undeveloped land on the rolling campus, and there has been talk about luring a hotel and other mixed-use projects there.  Already, around $50 million of commercial and residential investments, mostly private, has been poured into the project.  An additional $14 million in public money has been spent on environmental cleanup, clearing a greenway and installing underground utilities.  Most of that work began under Mayor Bill Purcell, who was elected in 1999 and served until 2007.  And some $150 million in commercial and residential investment in the site which is owned by the city's Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency, is expected in coming years.

"Not many places in the world have more than 30 acres of city land available," said Mr. Purcell, who pushed for the development and facilitated the transfer of the land to the city agency.

In the 19th century, the site was used as a processing terminal for wheat, corn and lumber, which would go through roller mills and then be carried by steamboats to towns and factories along the river.  For time, the mills earned Nashville the nickname "Minneapolis of the South", but in the 1920s the city’s advantageous freight rates ended and the industry slowly faded from Middle Tennessee.  Shortly after, the site became the campus of the city’s general hospital, which moved in the late 1990s.

Before revitalization began, the only road to the former roller mills was narrowandasphalt, passing a thermal plant that once incenerated trash from hundreds of trucks a day.  The plant was decommissioned and razed in 2004.

City planners say Rolling Mill Hill's resaissance is changing the way in which residents perceive the once - neglected area, just a short walk from the city’s publically finances $585 million convention center that is to open next year.

"Downtown has been unfolding for over 40 years," said Phil Ryan, who leads the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency.  "It's now becoming a larger urban place."

City planners say Rolling Mill Hill's redevelopment will be similar to that of the Gulch, a neighborhood in what was once a derelict industrial area.  Now it is a trendy enclave of gleaming condo towers and boutiques hops on the western periphery of downtown.  "We're trying to bring together a creative community," Mr. Ryan said, and added, "It will be entrepreneurs interacting with architects and a place where people from all over Tennessee will come for meetings."

Karl Dean, Nashville’s current mayor, agreed, saying the project “is good for our city, and the exchange of energy and ideas will help mover Nashville forward.”

But Rolling Mill Hill’s latest iteration has been bedeviled by delays; completions is now expected in about five years.  In 2009, three buildings developed as condominiums – the two hospital structures and newly built one – could not make $16 million on payments to a lender and were sold in a foreclosure sale.  They are now rentals. And the trolley barns languished for years after Mayor Purcell moved a fleet of city vehicles that were stored there to another site.

The properties were owned by Direct Development of Green Bay, Wis., which abandoned its plans in the credit crisis.  Even before the recession, Post Properties, a developer in Atlanta, pulled out of the project after the city rejected the company’s proposed economic incentives, as did the Trammel Crow Company of Dallas.  And Struever Brothers, Eccles & Rouse of Baltimore backed away from a commitment to the project after a deal to develop a nearby baseball stadium fell apart.

Although the redevelopment has made a more progress in recent years, some advocates say they believe that local residents, mostly working-class African-Americans, are being excluded.  The median annual income for a single person in the segments surrounding the development area is about $15,000, said James Fraser, a professor of urban policy and community development at Vanderbilt University who has studied neighborhoods south of downtown.

“It’s an effort to make Nashville seem more cosmopolitan, trying to get middle-class people to move back in the city,” Mr. Fraser said. “But there’s something to be said for having a mix of incomes in a neighborhood as it relates to democracy,” he said, noting that redevelopment could eventually displace longtime residents.

Nonetheless, the site’s rebirth is expected to be a boon to local businesses like Crema, an artisan coffee shop across Hermitage Avenue.  Rachel Leman, the owner, said Crema was barely scraping by in the recession but that business had been brisk as of late, which she attributed to the new residents and new workers in the trolley barns. By the time the trolley barns are fully occupied, Ms. Lehman said, the store will be “busting at the seams.”

“Customers often say, ‘Wow, I never knew this part of Nashville before,’” Ms. Lehman said. “But parcel by parcel, it’s becoming revived.”

I have a rule about real estate: there’s a time to buy and a time to sell.  The trick is knowing when to do that.

You just have to have feel about it.” – Bob Mathews